Ailey review – illuminating film about the choreographer Alvin Ailey

Jamila Wignot’s subtle documentary explores the influences, legacy – and ​private life – of the ​American dance pioneer


“Alvin Ailey is black and universal,” says the actor Cicely Tyson as she presents him with a lifetime achievement award in a clip from 1988 that opens this thoughtful documentary about the African American dancer and choreographer. Film-maker Jamila Wignot pays particular attention to the specificity of Ailey’s black influences: the church, blues music and his southern upbringing, all of which informed his best-known work, Revelations (1960).

Though Ailey was widely acclaimed, interviews with his former dancers, including Judith Jamison and George Faison, reveal the extent of his personal alienation. Being “the only one” in the predominantly white field of modern dance was only one aspect of his plight. Wignot subtly teases out the fact that despite having relationships with men, Ailey was not integrated into the queer community. He died from Aids-related complications, aged 58, in 1989.

Ailey’s story is interspersed with rehearsal scenes of a new work celebrating the 50th anniversary of the company he founded. Yet behind-the-scenes images of the dancers preparing for Lazarus are never as interesting or as graceful as the archive footage of Ailey himself.